P-code machine

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In computer programming, a p-code machine, precompiled code machine or pseudo-code[citation needed] machine is a virtual machine designed to execute p-code (the assembly language of a hypothetical CPU). This term is applied both generically to all such machines (such as the Java Virtual Machine and MATLAB precompiled code, both using bytecode), and to specific implementations, the most famous being the p-Machine of UCSD Pascal.

Although the concept was first implemented circa 1966 (as O-code for BCPL), the term p-code first appeared in the early 1970s. Two early compilers generating p-code were the Pascal-P compiler in 1973, by Nori, Ammann, Jensen, Hageli, and Jacobi,[1] and the Pascal-S compiler in 1975, by Niklaus Wirth.

Programs that have been translated to p-code are interpreted by a software program that emulates the behavior of the hypothetical CPU. If there is sufficient commercial interest, a hardware implementation of the CPU specification may be built (e.g., the Pascal MicroEngine).


Benefits and weaknesses of implementing p-code

Why p-code?

Compared to direct translation into native machine code, a two-stage approach involving translation into p-code and execution by an interpreter or just-in-time compiler offers several advantages.

  • Portability: It is much easier to write a small p-code interpreter for a new machine than it is to modify a compiler to generate native code for the same machine.
  • Simple implementation: Generating machine code is one of the more complicated parts of writing a compiler. By comparison, generating p-code is much easier. This makes it useful for getting a compiler up and running quickly.
  • Compact size: Since p-code is based on an ideal virtual machine, a p-code program is often much smaller than the same program translated to machine code.
  • Debugging: When the p-code is interpreted, the interpreter can apply additional runtime checks that are difficult to implement with native code.

In the early 1980s, at least two operating systems achieved machine independence through extensive use of p-code. The Business Operating System (BOS) was a cross-platform operating system designed to run p-code programs exclusively. The UCSD p-System, developed at The University of California, San Diego, was a self-compiling and self-hosted operating system based on p-code optimized for generation by the Pascal programming language.

In the 1990s, translation into p-code became a popular strategy for implementations of languages such as Python and Java.

Why not p-code?

One of the significant disadvantages of p-code is execution speed.

The UCSD p-Machine


Like many other p-code machines, the UCSD p-Machine is a stack machine, which means that most instructions take their operands from the stack, and place results back on the stack. So the "add" instruction replaces the two topmost elements of the stack with their sum. A few instructions take an immediate argument. Like Pascal, the p-code is strongly typed, supporting boolean (b), character (c), integer (i), real (r), set (s), and pointer (a) types natively.

Some simple instructions:

Insn.   Stack   Stack   Description
        before  after
adi      i1 i2   i1+i2   add two integers
adr      r1 r2   r1+r2   add two reals
dvi      i1 i2   i1/i2   integer division
inn      i1 s1   b1      set membership; b1 = whether i1 is a member of s1
ldci i1          i1      load integer constant
mov      a1 a2           move
not      b1      ~b1     boolean negation


Unlike other stack-based environments (such as Forth and the Java Virtual Machine) the p-System has only one stack shared by procedure stack frames (providing return address, etc.) and the arguments to local instructions. Three of the machine's registers point into the stack (which grows upwards):

  • SP points to the top of the stack (the stack pointer).
  • MP marks the beginning of the active stack frame (the frame pointer).
  • EP points to the highest stack location used in the current procedure.

Also present is a constant area, and, below that, the heap growing down towards the stack. The NP register points to the top (lowest used address) of the heap. When EP gets greater than NP, the machine's memory is exhausted.

The fifth register, PC, points at the current instruction in the code area.

Calling conventions

Stack frames look like this:

EP ->
      local stack
SP -> ...
      return address (previous PC)
      previous EP
      dynamic link (previous MP)
      static link (MP of surrounding procedure)
MP -> function return value

The procedure calling sequence works as follows: The call is introduced with

 mst n

where n specifies the difference in nesting levels (remember that Pascal supports nested procedures). This instruction will mark the stack, i.e. reserve the first five cells of the above stack frame, and initialise previous EP, dynamic, and static link. The caller then computes and pushes any parameters for the procedure, and then issues

 cup n, p

to call a user procedure (n being the number of parameters, p the procedure's address). This will save the PC in the return address cell, and set the procedure's address as the new PC.

User procedures begin with the two instructions

 ent 1, i
 ent 2, j

The first sets SP to MP + i, the second sets EP to SP + j. So i essentially specifies the space reserved for locals (plus the number of parameters plus 5), and j gives the number of entries needed locally for the stack. Memory exhaustion is checked at this point.

Returning to the caller is accomplished via


with C giving the return type (i, r, c, b, a as above, and p for no return value). The return value has to be stored in the appropriate cell previously. On all types except p, returning will leave this value on the stack.

Instead of calling a user procedure (cup), standard procedure q can be called with

 csp q

These standard procedures are Pascal procedures like readln() ("csp rln"), sin() ("csp sin"), etc. Peculiarly eof() is a p-Code instruction instead.

Example machine

Niklaus Wirth specified a simple p-code machine in the 1976 book Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs. The machine had 3 registers - a program counter p, a base register b, and a top-of-stack register t. There were 8 instructions, with one (opr) having multiple forms.

This is the code for the machine:

procedure interpret;
  const stacksize = 500;
    p, b, t: integer; {program-, base-, topstack-registers}
    i: instruction; {instruction register}
    s: array [1..stacksize] of integer; {datastore}
  function base(l: integer): integer;
    var b1: integer;
    b1 := b; {find base l levels down}
    while l > 0 do begin
      b1 := s[b1];
      l := l - 1
    base := b1
  end {base};
  writeln(' start pl/0');
  t := 0; b := 1; p := 0;
  s[1] := 0; s[2] := 0; s[3] := 0;
    i := code[p]; p := p + 1;
    with i do
      case f of
        lit: begin t := t + 1; s[t] := a end;
          case a of {operator}
              begin {return}
                t := b - 1; p := s[t + 3]; b := s[t + 2];
            1: s[t] := -s[t];
            2: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := s[t] + s[t + 1] end;
            3: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := s[t] - s[t + 1] end;
            4: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := s[t] * s[t + 1] end;
            5: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := s[t] div s[t + 1] end;
            6: s[t] := ord(odd(s[t]));
            8: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := ord(s[t] = s[t + 1]) end;
            9: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := ord(s[t] <> s[t + 1]) end;
            10: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := ord(s[t] < s[t + 1]) end;
            11: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := ord(s[t] >= s[t + 1]) end;
            12: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := ord(s[t] > s[t + 1]) end;
            13: begin t := t - 1; s[t] := ord(s[t] <= s[t + 1]) end;
        lod: begin t := t + 1; s[t] := s[base(l) + a] end;
        sto: begin s[base(l)+a] := s[t]; writeln(s[t]); t := t - 1 end;
          begin {generate new block mark}
            s[t + 1] := base(l); s[t + 2] := b; s[t + 3] := p;
            b := t + 1; p := a
        int: t := t + a;
        jmp: p := a;
        jpc: begin if s[t] = 0 then p := a; t := t - 1 end
      end {with, case}
  until p = 0;
  writeln(' end pl/0');
end {interpret};

This machine was used to run Wirth's PL/0, which was a Pascal subset compiler used to teach compiler development.


  1. Nori, K.V.; Ammann, U.; Jensen; Nageli, H. (1975). The Pascal P Compiler Implementation Notes. Zurich: Eidgen. Tech. Hochschule. 

Further reading

See also

it:P-Code nl:P-Code ja:Pコードマシン ru:P-код

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